Harlan County: Gap Between Rich and Poor

The differences between the coal miners of Harlan County and the white-collar higher ups within the same companies represent the huge gap of America’s rich and poor. In addition, the almost futile efforts of the coal miners illustrate the greater struggle of America’s poor in comparison to the upper class. America isn’t the promised land of opportunity for all, just a privileged few. The perseverance of those who participated in the Brookside Strike  is fueled by the desire to be heard rather than a tiny increase in wages; they were supposed to be helpless because they were labelled so, but they proved to be able to catalyze change regardless.
The severe conditions of the poor in Harlan County was a direct result of side-supply economics’ soaring popularity in the 70’s, leading up to it’s solidification by Reagan. The blatant lack of effort by the rich to better the coal miners’ income and benefits reflected this.

Harlan County, USA — Police Forces In New York City

In the documentary Harlan County USA, the main driving plot behind it revolves around the strike of miners and the overall involvement with regards to the union. The problems this documentary is tying to address is revolving around the issues of a monopoly on the labor market, inflation throughout the country making it near impossible to live with minimum wage anymore and health issues occurring from working in the mines. A particular moment during the documentary caught my eye and it was when the workers went to the city to get more publicity for this strike and the police forces are talking with the workers on strike. They had a conversation where the police force are asking them why they are doing this and they start to compare lives  in a way. This is showing the different lives as well as different life styles. It is sort of foreshadowing the decline of unions and inflation making too much of an impact.

Harlan County: The Age Old American Struggle

In this film we are introduced to the struggles facing the coal miners in Harlan county Kentucky. After being driven to strike by low wages and unsafe conditions in the work place the miners went on a lengthy as at times, bloody strike. We see men and women forming picket lines and standing in the way of “scabs” going to work in the mines and refusing to strike along with the other workers. Entire families come together to fight towards their goal of a safer work environment and a better standard of living and quality of life.

One scene in particular however struck me as an interesting insight into the American culture. In an interview with an older gentleman, he explains that when he was a child he would work in the mines himself. He describes the fact that even then the children had to band together and unionize because government officials, local officials and even religious leaders were apparently working behind the larger companies. So the struggle between labor and leadership is nothing new. In the 60s many revolutions took place as people in society came together to fight an ideological battle against many unpopular aspects of American life. But the children of the sixties sought to have government change things in a period of relative prosperity. As the economic situation declined we see a people who have become embittered with the system because it was not helping them; they literally had to fight for survival. This struggle goes back in the US as far as the 1800s. In over 100 years of history the strikers of Harlan country were still fighting for the same things.

One phrase that also was repeated was “we have to fight for our right” a common phrase now-a-days but I find that this speaks to the changing sentiment in the 70s. While in the 60s people felt they were fighting for  just causes, which motivated them even more. The seventies was a time for survival in a period when people could not count on their leaders anymore. They had to fight for themselves because no one could hear them and their leaders were not present to help them. Today it seems as though the power is shifting away from unions and back into government since people have more direct access to it but it begs the question in laborers and labor leaders will ever fix the “age old” American struggle of playing fair.

“Harlan County” Reflections

This “silent” documentary did an excellent job portraying an age-old conflict between the worker and the boss. For a man of 2013, what stands out the most is how little the workers were prepared to settle for. The working conditions of Harlan county miners are incomprehensible. Perhaps even less comprehensible is their eventual success in securing an employment contract from Duke Power Company. This success was celebrated by the miners all over the country and sparked future protests. The United Mine Workers of America showed us how little power did the labor unions have in 1970s, yet all members of the union and even their wives believed in power of unity. They persevered through disregard, threats, violence and murder. As I predicted while watching the documentary, Duke Power officials resisted contract demands primarily to avoid opening a Pandora’s Box. The victory over bosses gave miners confidence to challenge them further and demand more than they would ever before.

Personally, I think that the actions of Harlan county miners were heroic and necessary. The documentary exposed us to awful working conditions of coal miners, and lack of power to defend themselves against oppressive company heads. The fact that we cannot imagine anything similar happening in our day and age is indicative of the significance that the actions of Harlan county miners had on the history of labor in America.

Which side are you on?

Harlan County, USA Relation to Music

Harlan County,USA focus on the “Brookside Strike” in the 1970s . It follows the struggles of mine workers and their families who when on strikes after their employees, the Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, refused to give them safer and fair working condition and higher wages. The strike which almost  lasted a year,  went from a peaceful demonstration to violent cause by Eastover Coal Company who hired thugs to intimidate strikes with their guns . In one of those violent demonstration,a man named Lawrence Jones who was loved by the community is shot and killed. The tragedy lead to negotiation between UMWA and  Duke Power Company for a new contract and the end of the strike.

Music was an important part the strike in Harlan County in 1972. During strikes and mettings, the mine workers and families used music as a sign of hope. Other musicians wrote songs about the what was going on at the time and dangers of working in a coal mine to spread awareness. Like the mine workers in Harlan county, Bronx residents the the 1970s felt hopeless and use music to talk about the situations they were in.


Harlan County USA

If the coal strike was more recent, it would be one of the most liberal event of this year. I was shock to see a pro-union labor strike in Kentucky. A state that has mostly been voting on the conservative side for the last 20 years. Somewhere between the coal strike and current day, Kentucky turned very conservative in terms of their voting pattern. The coal strike want to form a union and have some type of health insurance due to black lung disease. The strike gets violent as the company hires men to protect the company man who were hire to replace to coal miners. It is really hard to imagine such event can take place today because with the internet, everything in public is on the internet and it can be view by the whole world. To hold such long protest to be unionize is also hard to imagine because what do people do for months without a source of income. The documentary is very emotional because it really shows the struggles of living in a small town with only coal mining as a big source of jobs. It also shows the strength of the community as they stay together to fight the company. The songs they sung also pushes the emotions because it is a sad tone but also it is a story in the song and with some  melody and repetition that makes easy to sing along to.

The Harlan County USA

In the 1970’s in the United States, people suffered from huge economic down tone due to the oil crisis and American companies’ weakness of producing power to compete foreign companies. An American steel company which had been the most powerful industry in the world before, a car industry and many other jobs started declining, so those companies tried cutting down wages and keeping away from labor unions. People had no choice to work with minimum wages and harsh work conditions, and a labor union became less influential than before. The movie “Harlan County USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, well described the situations of a conflict between unionized workers and a coal company at the beginning of the 1970’s.

The movie starts in Harlan County, Kentucky where unionized coal miners at the Duke Power Company strike against the company to demand safer working condition and decent wages. In fact, even though the company’s profit increased, the miners live in dirty conditions, and some workers suffer from pneumoconiosis because of coal dust. The strike gradually becomes bloody that one labor union worker is associated, and both the strikers and people at the company side show off their guns. Actually, this action is the key that the local administration and/ or government don’t fully intervene in this matter. Finally, the company compromises with strikers, but the contract doesn’t cover all of striker’s insistence. This circumstance is very similar to gang’s condition in the 1970’s in the Bronx because the government abandoned them, and gangs knew that they had to improve their conditions by themselves.

Black Lung

“He went to the boss man but he closed the door

Well, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor

You ain’t even covered in their medical plans

And your life depends on the favors of man…

..Black lung, black lung, oh your hand’s icy cold

As you reach for my life and you torture my soul

Cold as that water hole down in that dark cave

Where I spent my life’s blood diggin’ my own grave” – song by Kathy Mattea

In one of the scenes of this documentary, a mine worker is having a conversation with a NYC cop during their protest in the financial district area. This is one of my favorite scenes from the documentary because during their conversation, the cop admits that he would not want to go into the mines, he said it was “too dangerous”, then the mine worker asked “is your job real dangerous too?”, the cop’s facial expression was priceless as he nodded and said “this is all I do, a lot of bull***”. The irony in this scene is how the cop admits to getting “all kinds of healths” (benefits), and a retirement plan for a job that far less dangerous than the miner, who on the contrary, does not get any health benefit plan, nor retirement plan and must live with the risk of dying in a mine explosion, or due to black lung disease.

Unfortunately, these mine workers were not only vulnerable to unexpected mine explosions, but also to contracting any type of respiratory disease due to inhaling coal dust for several hours every day. Black lung disease was the most common for mine workers. In the documentary, we can see how the men had to live with this disease as a consequence of their labor in the mines. They struggled with talking, walking and even just breathing. But worst, they struggle with no medical and retirement plan.

In essence, while coal companies benefited from a 170% profit, they could not afford, or chose to not afford, to offer their mine workers a better salary and working conditions, or a retirement plan, or at least a decent medical plan. Instead they let their miners retire with black lung disease, if they were fortunate enough to not die in a mine explosion.

Similarities Between Harlan County and Urban New York City

The issues taking place in Harlan County, although not exactly the same problems that plagued urban areas of New York City were similar in many regards. For each demographic, it was the lower to middle working class that suffered at the hands of institutions. In New York Cities case, the institution was the political system that felt urban areas did not warrant or deserve funding for infrastructure restoration and education. In Harland, the MWA employers were taking advantage of their workers. The management were in a sense were like the government. I state this because they were a monopoly with a stronghold on employment in their area and the workers were the their mercy. In both locations the local law enforcement- the people who are supposed to protect and serve seemed to be siding with the enemy. In Harlan County, the police simply stood by as weapons were brandished. They carted picketers off to jail and claimed they were simply doing their job, however it was unmistakable which side they favored. In urban New York City, police harassment was common occurrence. Again, there was no feeling of being helped or feeling safe from police. On the contrary, there was a sense of apprehension and anxiety.

Both groups felt the need to take matters in their own hands. The gangs in New York City had formed as a result of this but in Harlan County, the MWA had been established for a number of years. They both justifiably decided that if they did not help themselves, no one would and they would have continued being taken advantage of. They both stood up for themselves by banding together. Both groups showed the prevailing strength in numbers and what can be accomplished by sticking together.

Harlan County’s Sheriffs Department


Harlan County’s Sheriffs Department played a role throughout the documentary, Harlan County, USA; however they did not seem to defend the mine workers and their families from the evil companies.  It is understood they were merely doing their jobs when they had to keep the roads open from the picket lines preventing the scabs from taking the striking miners’ jobs.  The relationship between the police and the miners  got out of hand when the picket lines and the police offers clashed.  The police are suppose to protect the good from evil and uphold the law.  Unfortunately, the police were not their to defend the workers from the thugs of the companies who used intimidation tactics to break the picket lines up. The police were not present when the thugs were intimidating the striking miners.  They could have prevented the murder of the young miner who was taken away from his family and community at such a young age.  His death brought victory for the striking miner’s and they won their contract they wanted.